Marcus Aurelius: The Education of a Philosopher

Some notes on what we learn about Stoicism from Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, and what he says he admired most about them.

Bust of Young Marcus AureliusWhat did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers?  We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue.  So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men?  Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.

The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told he was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.  As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor.  Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practised in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.  We know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.

At the end of Book 1, Mrcus thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers.  It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton (“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus.  There’s no mention of any specific Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.

Diognetus

Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:

[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrhêsia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [agôgê].(Meditations, 1.6)

The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrhêsia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element.  Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan agôgê, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle.  Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers to whom he referred Marcus.  It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main philosophy tutors.

Junius Rusticus

From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

Statue of Young Marcus AureliusThe Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher.  The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere.  However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today.  So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus.  Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met.  However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.

Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction.  That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots.  Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.

He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against.  Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.

Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse.  Marcus elsewhere thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.

Apollonius of Chalcedon

The Historia Augusta suggests that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.

From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)

The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason.  What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go?  This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.

Sextus of Chaeronea

Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch.  According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”

Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:

From Sextus, kindness, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)

The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking.  Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes) and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life.  He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).

Claudius Maximus

Claudius Maximus is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor.  He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa.  Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).

From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)

Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally.  He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics.  He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help.  He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety.  What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should stand upright, not be set upright.”

Marcus Aurelius and the Civil War in the East

Biographical fiction recounting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the Eastern Provinces, against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the way Marcus may have responded by using Stoic psychological exercises, philosophical doctrines, and the therapy of the passions.

Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life.  Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.

Prologue

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:

Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?

Marcus AureliusSlowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?

He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions.  This is how he prepares for life.

Cassius in Egypt

May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.

In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacared them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.

Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.

The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him.  They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule.  However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.”  His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity.  Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.

Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.

In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.

These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.

The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.

Marcus in Pannonia

At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”

The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.

Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so.  That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control.  Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.

Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.

Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time.  The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.

After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…

For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:

If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]

This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else.  Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.

At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.

In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:

If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)

Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly.  Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.

Marcus Announces the Civil War

Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, bassed on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side.  Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.

Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.

However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.

Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.

After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.

Marcus’ Meditations

Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.

When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.

It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]

As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.

Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]

He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.

All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to.  If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.

But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus talks himself through this.  When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.

The March South & Cassius’ Death

Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper.  Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.

However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge.  The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.

One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.

Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Buthynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.

Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.

The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.

Epilogue

Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.

We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.

Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.

Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life.  Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.

We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice.  Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him.  Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”

The Emperor Meditates Before Battle

Shirt vignette based on events in the life of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, incorporating a description of a Stoic contemplative exercise.

Marcus Aurelius on horseback(This is based on material in my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), published by Karnac.)

The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.

The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes.  Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society.  First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort.  Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.

Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…

Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him, into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.

Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.

Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:

Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.

He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair.  His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away…  He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while…  he waits…  he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…

Then he slowly shifts his attention…  He imagines looking at his body from the outside…  at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing…  He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective…  Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed…  He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body…  He looks down on the camp around him…  He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…

Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests…  He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers…  He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there…  going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways…  Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them…  He’s done this a hundred times before…

Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers…  where one country ends and another begins…  and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you…  silently turning…  majestic and beautiful…

You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…

You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life…  The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…

And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…

You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…

You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…

And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…

Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…

You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…

As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…

He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective.  Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth…  toward the real world, and the present moment…  toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…

His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes…  He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…

He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward.  His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before.  He feels prepared.  He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.

Marcus Aurelius in Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952)

The novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck mentions The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the narrative.

East of EdenThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck.  Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on East Of Eden‘.  Steinbeck once said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life.  Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the novel.  We can also find the following direct reference:

[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.

Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.

He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Lee glanced down the page. “Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. I’m sorry. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’—don’t forget that.” He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter’s pencil, “Sam’l Hamilton.”

Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam’l Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, “But of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?”  He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.

Marcus Aurelius and Junius Rusticus

Some notes on the relationship between Marcus Aurelius and his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

The Roman statesman Quintus Junius Rusticus (100 – c. 170 AD) was one of the pre-eminent Stoic philosophers of his day, and the main philosophical teacher of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD).  He was a powerful member of the Roman political elite, and served twice as consul, the highest elected position in the Empire.  In fact Rusticus was first appointed consul in 162 AD, the year after his student Marcus Aurelius became Emperor.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio says of Marcus:

His education was of great assistance to him, for he had been trained both in rhetoric and in philosophical disputation. In the former he had Cornelius Fronto and Claudius Herodes for teachers, and, in the latter, Junius Rusticus and Apollonius of Nicomedeia, both of whom professed [the founder of Stoicism] Zeno’s doctrines.  As a result, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by the emperor.  Most of all, however, he owed his advancement to his own natural gifts; for even before he associated with those teachers he had a strong impulse towards virtue.(Epitome of Book LXXII)

The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta says that as a youth his enthusiasm for philosophy was so great that he insisted on attending the lectures of several Stoic philosophers after being adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius.

He received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system, with whom Marcus shared all his counsels both public and private, whom he greeted with a kiss prior to the prefects of the guard, whom he even appointed consul for a second term, and whom after his death he asked the senate to honour with statues. (Historia Augusta)

It was customary for the Emperor to bestow a ceremonial kiss upon the highest-ranking members of the senate.  The author goes on to say that Marcus held his teachers in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

This reverential attitude is likewise reflected in Marcus’ Meditations, where it’s implied that Rusticus was honoured in his household shrine, along with members of his own family.  In the opening chapter of the Meditations, Marcus recalls, in a contemplative manner, the virtues of his family, teachers, etc., and what he’s learned from their example.  The seventh passage summarizes the main virtues he observed in his main Stoic teacher:

From Rusticus [I learned] to become aware of the fact that my character needed improvement and training; and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver pretentious sermons, or show-off with ostentatious displays of self-discipline or generosity; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and refined language; and not to lounge about the house in my toga, or to let myself go in this sort of way; and to write letters simply, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to show oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as ever they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial bird’s-eye view; nor to be too quick to go along with smooth-talkers; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me without of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

The advice to refrain from over-indulgence in abstract philosophical debate, or sophistry, and to keep the focus on the practical application of philosophical principles, was characteristic of Stoicism.  So also the notion that a wise mentor can help us first of all by raising our awareness of our own flaws or, as we’d say today, our “blind-spots.”  Overall, Rusticus seems to have urged Marcus to adopt simplicity in his lifestyle and speech, something which, as Hadot notes, seems to have clashed with his training with the rhetorician Fronto.  The first chapter of the Meditations concludes with a long passage in which Marcus thanks the gods for having such good teachers and for the opportunity to know Rusticus and the others.  Marcus also thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  These and other comments throughout the Meditations suggest that Marcus struggled with occasional feelings of anger and frustration, perhaps in response to the plain-spoken criticisms of his Stoic tutor.

It’s not certain but seems very likely that in the passage above Marcus is referring to the Discourses of Epictetus (55 -135 AD), as we know them today.  Throughout the Meditations, he appears very acquainted with that text and arguably bases his own philosophical position mainly on his reading of it.  Marcus was about thirteen years old when Epictetus died, so it’s perhaps unlikely that they met in person.  However, Rusticus may well have studied under Epictetus, so it’s also possible that in the passage above Marcus is referring to personal notes made by Rusticus at these lectures.

Marcus was certainly greatly influenced by the teachings of Epictetus and the influence of Rusticus may help to explain the link between the two men.

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta

What do we learn about the life and character of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the author of The Meditations, from the Historia Augusta?

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and BeyondThe Historia Augusta is a somewhat unreliable Latin history, supposedly compiled from the writings of different authors.  It appears to contain a mixture of authentic historical facts derived from other sources, and fictitious elaboration added by one or more later authors.  However, it is one of the few sources of information about the life of Marcus Aurelius, the author of the famous Stoic journal, originally entitled To Himself but better known today as The Meditations.

It contains a chapter dedicated to the life of Marcus, which appears reasonably plausible and may be one of the more reliable parts of the text.  Indeed, several of the details given about Marcus’ life in this text appear consistent with biographical fragments in The Meditations.  This potentially lends the rest of the biography some credibility as  historians consider it unlikely the author actually had access to a copy of The Meditations.  A detailed scholarly analysis of the text has recently been published by Dr. Geoff W. Adams, of the University of Tasmania, called Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and Beyond (2013).

So what does the biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta say that may be of interest to us in terms of his Stoicism?  The opening sentence states that Marcus  “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told Marcus was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics and Cynics.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practiced in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

We’re told of his character: “He was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”  He’s praised as a benevolent and wise ruler:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state.  He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.

We’re told he was not quick to punish anyone, and that although resolute he was always reasonable and restrained.  He was renowned for acts of kindness and compassion.  For example, apparently Marcus was the first to order that tight-rope walkers, often young boys, should be protected from injury by placing mattresses beneath their ropes, since which time nets have been used to reduce the risk.  Presumably he felt that the spectacle of children risking their lives was unnecessary and their skills could still be entertaining enough, though the performance was made safe.

The war in Germania is portrayed as necessary to defend Rome against incursions and difficult because the armies were seriously depleted by plague.  Marcus took the controversial, but perhaps prudent decision to order slaves and gladiators to be armed and trained for military service.  We’re told he auctioned off the treasures of the imperial palace selling robes, goblets, statues, and paintings, to raise funds for the war in Germania.  Perhaps his comment about his indifference to his purple imperial robes, described as just wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore, in The Meditations, can be linked to the sacrifice of such precious garments.

But because Marcus appeared severe in his military discipline and in fact in his general lifestyle, as a consequence of his philosophical practices, he was angrily criticized; but to all of those who spoke badly of him, he responded in either orations or in brochures.

In other words, despite his supreme power, he did not have his outspoken critics punished, or even killed, as emperors such as Nero did.  It seems his austere lifestyle led both to prudence in running the state but also to some anxiety among the population.  We’re told that when he recruited the gladiators to serve in the army, “there was gossip among the people that he sought to take away their amusements and so force them to study philosophy.”  Again, though, with regard to his concern with justice, we’re told:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending.  […] He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes.  He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.

Curiously, we’re told Marcus was “exceptionally adored” by the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and that he somehow “left the imprint of philosophy” upon them.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.

This is another typical characteristic attributed to Stoics: the wise man has a fundamental constancy, and is unchanged by external circumstances, whatever his fate.  Whether he meets with outward success or failure, he is always the same, because these things are ultimately “indifferent” to him, only his own virtue (or vice) really matters enough to influence his state of mind.  When Marcus became seriously ill he ended his life by refraining from eating and drinking, which we’re also told Zeno the founder of Stoicism did when he wished to end his life.

Stoicism has a military flavour, both in its language and in the lifestyle and attire adopted by its adherents.  Stoic leaders, perhaps for that reason, were sometimes popular with the Roman troops.  Marcus is portrayed as a man dedicated to the military and adored by them, not unlike the Stoic hero Cato before him.  Hence, “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”

When near death, he called his friends around, showing, we’re told, a lofty indifference to his own impending demise.  He said: “Why do you cry for me, instead of considering the pestilence and the death that is the common destiny of us all.”  This is a standard Stoic formula, in fact.  Contemplating the universal and inevitable nature of death is supposed to help us accept it with indifference, as determined by Nature.